More industrial mishaps feared in California summer blackouts : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Chemical leak waves red flag in Contra Costa More industrial mishaps feared in summer blackouts

Joe Garofoli, Pia Sarkar, Chronicle Staff Writers Thursday, May 3, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


Richmond -- Dozens of factories in Contra Costa County's industrial belt contain dangerous amounts of hazardous materials, but county officials said yesterday that they have not determined how many have backup generators to avoid potential disaster when blackouts hit this summer.

It is a major concern in the county with the highest amount of hazardous materials per capita in California -- especially after a freak power failure Tuesday is believed to have been responsible for a chemical release at the General Chemical Corp. plant in Richmond.

"This happened and it made us say, 'What's wrong and what can be done?' " said county Supervisor John Gioia, whose West Contra Costa district contains General Chemical and a Chevron refinery. "We want to find out if this is an exception to the rule or part of a larger problem."

More than a hundred people sought treatment at area hospitals and thousands were forced indoors after the plant released a potentially dangerous cloud of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide. The company is expected to file a preliminary report on the accident by tomorrow.

Although Tuesday's accident happened when power was being restored after a tank truck hit a power pole outside the plant, the incident caused concerns about the 45 Contra Costa companies that state and federal regulators say contain potentially dangerous materials.

All facilities that contain toxic chemicals should be required to have backup generators as part of their permits, said Denny Larson of Communities for a Better Environment.

"If you're running a company and can kill somebody with these chemicals, why shouldn't you have backup power?" he said.

All of Contra Costa's oil refineries have backup power, as does Dow Chemical in Pittsburg, one of the Bay Area's largest chemical plants. But county regulators are only halfway through an audit of the county's 26 largest handlers of hazardous materials.

All of the plants inspected so far have backups, said Randy Sawyer, the county's accidental release prevention engineer.

But at the inspectors' current rate, residents won't know how many of the rest of the plants are prepared for blackouts until the end of the year. All 45 factories probably will not be inspected for two more years, Saywer said.

"There's a sense of urgency now," Sawyer said. "If (county supervisors) asked us, we could probably finish all of them in a few weeks."

Gioia said he will recommend at next Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting that the county survey all facilities that house hazardous materials to make sure they have plans to respond to blackouts.

Industry officials say they feel a sense of urgency, too.

"I would expect that any industry that has hazardous materials is in the process of securing a backup generator," said Scott Anderson, a spokesman for Dow Chemical. Its three backup power sources have enabled the plant to survive two power failures without incident.

Backup generators may not replace all of a plant's power source, said Sawyer and others, forcing a facility to cut down on other operations and possibly increase the likelihood of a mishap. At most industrial plants, accidents are most likely to occur when operations are being started or shut down.

A bill to put oil refineries at the end of the rolling blackout list sailed through the state Assembly last week, but industry officials didn't know of a similar attempt to exempt plants containing hazardous materials.

Some companies may hesitate to buy a backup power source because of the cost and because the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is considering requiring permits for generators, industry officials said. The air board will consider the amendment in August.

Meanwhile, General Chemical experienced another gas leak at 1:30 a.m. yesterday as plant workers attempted to restart a turbine that had shut down during Tuesday's power blackout.

"It was a failure in the very same system that they had a problem with (Tuesday)," said Richmond Deputy Battalion Chief Jim Fajardo.

The second leak -- which coughed more sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide into the air -- was contained an hour later, Fajardo said. Warning sirens were not sounded because the plume was relatively small and did not appear to be headed toward populated areas, he said.

Some Richmond residents questioned why county officials waited almost two hours after Tuesday's leak to alert the community.

"When that plume is visible, that's when people should be warned and alerted," said Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, who lives in North Richmond. "The major problem is the hesitation. It's as if (the county is) afraid to alert the residents."

E-mail Joe Garofoli at and Pia Sarkar at

-- Martin Thompson (, May 03, 2001


Chemical leak in Richmond

MICHELLE R. SMITH, Associated Press Writer Tuesday, May 1, 2001

(05-01) 19:40 PDT RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) -- A chemical leak in Richmond forced residents to stay inside Tuesday while crews worked to contain a cloud of sulfur dioxide and sulfur trioxide.

At least 25 people went to area hospitals before the leak was contained at 6:20 p.m. Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials officials said they did not consider it a major release.

The leak started when workers at General Chemical Corp. -- which regenerates sulfuric acid -- tried to restart operations after a power outage. The outage was caused when a vehicle hit a pole at about 2:00 p.m., knocking down electric lines to the plant.

A turbine would not come back online when power was restored, causing the leak, said Jim Gallagher, of Contra Costa County Health Services. Small amounts of the chemicals leaked from the plant, but it was not a problem until the wind changed, Gallagher said, and the turbine was not fixed.

``This thing escalated over a course of time,'' Gallagher said. ``Normally these things can be brought back online and corrected quickly. Normal didn't happen.''

As the afternoon wore on, the shift in wind caused the chemicals to be carried over a wider area. Contra Costa County declared a level three alert at 4:00 p.m. The county sounded its warning signs and issued a shelter-in-place order.

People within a half mile radius of the plant -- north and east of the Richmond Parkway -- were told to stay inside, close their windows and turn off their air conditioners.

Officials at General Chemical could not be reached for comment.

The company was told not to bring the plant back online until health officials were notified and assured all problems were corrected, Gallagher said. That could be as soon as Wednesday morning.

A 1993 oleum leak at General Chemical sent some 24,000 people in West Contra Costa County to seek medical attention. After that, the plant reduced oleum storage from 600 tons to 36 tons.

Richmond, home to numerous oil refineries and chemical companies, has often been the site of chemical releases and other industrial accidents.

In October, one man was killed and thousands of people told to stay indoors after an explosion and fire rocked a plastics recycling center. file=/news/archive/2001/05/01/state2240EDT0285.DTL

-- Martin Thompson (, May 03, 2001.

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